Doug Schneider, Press and Sun Bulletin,Greater Binghampton, New York, March 11, 2007
Two years after cyanide gas leaked from a factory in India, killing thousands as they slept, the U.S. government ordered communities to create emergency-response plans — plans that could affect whether you survive a disaster.
Most information in these plans is considered public record, and is immediately available to anyone who asks for it.
But Broome and two other area counties balked at releasing the information when asked for it.
Broome has taken more than a month to reveal what’s in its Local Emergency Response Plan, saying, in effect, that divulging parts of the public document could endanger the public.
County officials say they aren’t certain which parts they can let the public see, and may need a month to decide.
Otsego County, and Susquehanna County, Pa., also refused in-person requests for their plans, which are designed to be blueprints for how counties respond in life-threatening emergencies. Delaware, Tioga and Tompkins counties provided theirs when a visitor walked in and asked. Chenango County provided its plan via e-mail a week after receiving a request.
Tioga and Delaware also post versions of their plans on the Internet.
During the past two months, reporters and volunteers from news organizations across the country requested the documents in 404 communities in 37 states and Puerto Rico as part of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual “Sunshine Week,” project, which promotes awareness of open government.
Locally, the Press & Sun-Bulletin, and volunteers from the League of Women Voters of Broome and Tioga counties, visited county offices unannounced to see if members of the public have easy access to the plans.
The response in Greater Binghamton mirrors a national trend. In more than one-third of cases, government said “no.”
“The concern is whether (revealing the plan) goes against homeland security,” said Assistant Broome County attorney Holly Zurenda-Cruz, referring to the federal anti-terrorism program instituted after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Indeed, federal law says governments may withhold sensitive parts of the plan, like the locations where toxic chemicals are stored.
Zurenda-Cruz also invoked New York’s Freedom of Information Law. FOIL was created to maximize people’s access to government actions by minimizing the number of times public business is kept secret. But when an agency withholds parts of records under FOIL, the law says, it must release the others.
Two League of Women Voters volunteers first requested Broome’s plan on Jan. 9. At that point, a county health department employee acted as if the plan was public, handing over a document several inches thick.
When the women asked for a copy, things got complicated.
They were told to visit another office about a three-minute drive away. The request needed to be in writing. They were told they’d need to pay $2, and would have a CD in 10 business days.
About two weeks after the written request was filed, a letter arrived from Legislative Clerk Eric S. Denk. The request for a copy of a document — one they’d already seen — had been denied.
On Feb. 2, the newspaper asked in writing to see Broome’s plan. Broome should have responded before Feb. 10, according to FOIL. The county could have granted or denied the request, or granted partial access.
It did neither.
On Feb. 20, the newspaper filed a second request. On March 1, Zurenda-Cruz granted partial approval. But first, she said, officials had to review it to see which details could endanger the public.
“We can’t stop our everyday work,” she said, “to make sure this gets done in one day.”
Denk, who helped lead the county’s push for a FOIL-friendly Web site when he became clerk this year, said Friday he was surprised to learn that one county department had allowed people to see the report before the county reviewed it. He also was surprised that Delaware and some other counties put their plans on the Web.
The county, he said, is still reviewing the plan.
“The emergency management director told me the law department has given them a month,” Denk said. “I hope you know I’m not jerking you around on this.”
FALLOUT FROM BHOPAL
The federal law governing local emergency plans requires that they identify facilities and transportation routes of hazardous substances and describe emergency procedures. The law — the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 — was spurred by the 1984 incident in which deadly gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
As many as 20,000 people died, estimates say, though Union Carbide puts the number at 3,828. Thousands more were injured, many seriously, and the company paid more than $470 million in settlement costs.
In the U.S. today, states decide who sets up the local plans; New York gives the job to its 62 counties. The state of Maine has 350 local offices; Oregon has one. The plans are supposed to:
* List procedures for public notification in emergencies.
* Describe areas potentially affected — Tioga’s, for example, spells out the radius that could be impacted if formaldehyde was to leak from a plant in Owego.
* Outline evacuation plans.
* List certain resources available in emergencies.
* Identify local emergency response coordinators.
Significant parts of each plan are public; U.S. code says such plans “shall be made available to the general public … during normal working hours.”
Other parts are private. Those include specifics on where dangerous chemicals are stored, and information about the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), which has large quantities of medicine and medical supplies if local supplies run out in an emergency.
There are good reasons why the entire report isn’t public. Specifics about where a manufacturing plant stores toxic chemicals and how much is on hand, for example, could be useful to a terrorist.
Some officials, though, take that to mean the entire report should be secret.
Officials in Springfield, Ill., denied a request from a reporter — and called the police, who ran a computerized background check on the person.
A Maryland county tried to charge a reporter $1,714 for a plan the law says it should have photocopied for $114. Tom Walsh, emergency management director in Carver, Mass., was succinct. “I know what game you’re playing with this audit,” he told a reporter. “My answer to you is ‘no.'”
Some New York counties put significant portions of their plans on the Web to make it easier for residents to know what to do in emergencies from epidemics to earthquakes to explosions.
In Ulster County in the Hudson Valley, a resident with a computer need simply visit the county’s Web site during a spare moment to get more than 100 pages of emergency-response information, including more than a dozen evacuation maps and addresses for 10 sites where emergency shelters would likely be set up in a disaster. The person could then print the information and keep it in a folder until needed.
“The comprehensive plan is general enough that it is an education tool that people can use,” said Art Snyder, Ulster’s director of emergency response and communications.
Counties aren’t required to put emergency plans online; Susquehanna, Pa., and Chenango do not. Tioga has a 220-page version of its 2003 plan online. The plan has been updated since then, said Emergency Management Coordinator Richard LeCount.
But despite their value — some plans list actual routes people should follow if a river floods or a rail car leaks poisonous gas — few people, other than an occasional reporter, ask to see them, officials said after the audit.
Longtime Delaware County Emergency Services Director Nelson Delameter — asked for a copy of his county’s plan — needed only seconds to produce a binder containing the document, and seconds more to express surprise that someone had requested it. The 2003 version of Delaware’s plan is online.
Tioga County employees simply seemed glad that someone was showing interest.
An employee willingly provided a copy, then waived a 25-cents-per-page fee that could have topped $50, said Joan Goodell, the League of Women Voters member who requested it.
The lone hiccup: A state Web site says Tioga’s plan is kept at Hadco Corp. — a business that became Sanmina SCI in 2000. A Sanmina employee directed Goodell and a colleague to the county offices in Owego.
“Everyone was very helpful,” Goodell said of her Jan. 10 visit. “It was a positive experience.”
Not everyone was so helpful.
“There are things in there I’m not sure even I’m allowed to see,” a man in Otsego County’s Emergency Services office in Cooperstown told the person who requested that county’s plan Jan. 9. The official, introduced as “Kevin,” referred questions to the county’s EMS director. Asked when the director would be available, he said it might be that afternoon — and it might not.
He would not release the plan. According to the head of the state office that oversees public records laws, he should not have withheld the entire plan.
“In New York, there may be some aspects of the county’s emergency plans that might be justifiably withheld,” Robert Freeman, executive director of the State Committee on Open Government, wrote July 31 in response to the question of whether Suffolk County should make its plan public. But, he wrote, “I do not believe all such plans may be withheld in their entirety.”
Otsego officials didn’t respond to a Press & Sun-Bulletin e-mail seeking the plan, but mailed a 2003 plan to a citizen who asked.
South of the New York-Pennsylvania border, the response was similar to Otsego’s.
Susquehanna County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Wood pointed to his desk Tuesday when a visitor asked where he could find the county’s emergency response plan. But he said the person would have to file a written request with the county commissioners, and that he would not grant access unless told by commissioners to do so.
“I don’t know why you’d want to see that,” he said. “It’s not what we consider a general public document.”